The Janissary Tree

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The Janissary Tree ('Yashim the Eunuch' Mystery)  By Jason GoodwinYashim, a eunuch formerly attached to the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul (as a eunuch not the only thing he was formerly attached to!), is summoned by the Sultan to look into the mysterious death of a guardsman whose remains are found in a huge cauldron. One death soon becomes two and before long Yashim finds himself at the heart of something very suspicious. With the help of Stainslav Palewski the bumbling Polish ambassador and Preen – a high class hooker for want of a better description, Yashim tries to find the culprit before another murder is committed and in doing so unearths a twenty-year grievance‚Ķ.

Set in Ottoman Istanbul in the 1830s, I suppose one would class “The Janissary Tree” as a historical detective novel. The attention to detail and the authenticity seems hard to fault and knowing that the author Jason Goodwin is an expert on things Ottoman ought to persuade the reader that things are correct. I have, however, read reviews that listed a catalogue of errors, though most of them said that this did not spoil their enjoyment of the book. Since I would not have spotted any of those errors I will not dwell upon them here but should point out that the author does apologise for any historical slips that may be put down to the demands of the novelist’s craft.

Anyone who has visited Istanbul will find in “The Janissary Tree” a city hardly changed from the vast metropolis it is today. Goodwin really brings it to life in a way that surprised me; several years ago I read his book “On Foot to the Golden Horn”, an account of a journey on foot from Poland to Istanbul he made with his then girlfriend (now wife) Kate and while I enjoyed it, it did not hint at any future career as a novelist. It wasn’t until I had finished this book that I realised who the author was and I must admit that I would not have expected something so “literary” and accomplished as this.

Goodwin recreates the sounds, the smells and the colours of Istanbul from the fabrics of peoples’ clothing to the smells of food cooking in Yashim’s tiny room. I found it very evocative and felt myself back in Istanbul, in the narrow streets around the bazaar or down at the water’s edge at the Golden Horn.

“Jason Goodwin has gone far beyond the call of duty with the care and detail of this book.”

He also provides a super beginner’s guide to the Ottomans, describing the harem and what went on behind those closed doors. He explains the role of the eunuchs (although he fails to explain why Yashim is chosen by the Sultan to investigate) and other members of the court and he even gives a potted history of some of the major sights of the city that visitors flock to today – the Aya Sofia, the Hippodrome and the Galata Tower, for example. None of this, however, interrupts the flow of the story; there are no superfluous digressions and the information does enhance the reader’s understanding of the story.

To be fair, the story is quite convoluted and it isn’t the sort of mystery that armchair detectives will find themselves solving at home. I did find I had to flick back a few times because I wasn’t sure I had understood the story properly. I also found the story quite slow moving, how it filled 325 pages I’m not sure – perhaps it was all the references to Ottoman history and recipes for Turkish dishes!

Another problem I found was the style of writing and some of the references. Although I have praised Jason Goodwin’s ability to create evocative images of old Istanbul I found the dialogue incongruous because it really sounded too modern. I also raised my eyebrows at things like Yashim using a “jar of tomato puree” in his cooking. I don’t doubt that tomato puree was used at the time but it just didn’t sound right.

As for the characters I can’t say whether I found them credible – I have met too few eunuch detectives or Ottoman Sultans to make an informed decision – but I did find them interesting and compelling and about as diverse a crowd as you may find in a novel. I must conclude that I found Yashim very interesting but the author failed to develop the character and he seemed anchorless within the story whereas more minor characters seemed quite grounded. The sequel is now available in hardback and I am hoping that we learn more about Yashim as I think he is a character with much potential.

In spite of these negatives, I really enjoyed “The Janissary Tree“. It did take me longer than usual to get hooked but the sense of satisfaction when I had finished was enough to tell me it had been worth persevering when, after the first hundred pages I was unsure. For fans of historical thrillers, this book is great; Jason Goodwin has gone far beyond the call of duty with the care and detail of this book. I predict that Yashim the White Eunuch will become a household name among fans of the genre.
325 pages

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Janissary Tree (The)
by Jason Goodwin

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